Exploring The Parks: Rendezvous at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site
Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site recently hosted its 32nd annual Fort Union Rendezvous that takes place each year during the third weekend in June. This year’s event commenced Thursday with Kids Day in the fort courtyard. Activities throughout the weekend included demonstrations of pottery making, gunsmithing, blacksmithing, bow making, flintlock firing, and frontier cooking. Muskrat skinning and brain tanning were offered for the strong of heart.
Talks on the history of Fort Union and fur trade in the Upper Missouri took place throughout each day of the rendezvous. A highlight of this year’s event was a Saturday afternoon presentation by author and former National Park Service Ranger Rex Allen Norman. Norman, who currently resides in Carson City, Nevada, formerly worked at Fort Laramie National Historic Site and Valley Forge National Historical Park. The historic site reported weekend visitation of more than 3,000, and the participation of nearly 100 volunteers.
The original Fort Union was constructed in 1828 to facilitate trade with Plains tribes that traveled throughout an extended region surrounding the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers. Tribal leaders typically negotiated trades for their buffalo robes and other furs that included fox, beaver, and otter, in exchange for beads, knives, guns, and metal pots, most of which had been imported from Europe. Traders, in turn, sold the robes and furs to thriving markets in Europe and the eastern United States.
The fort dominated fur trade on the upper Missouri for nearly 40 years, until near the end of the Civil War when large numbers of whites began migrating west. In 1867, Fort Union was purchased and dismantled by the U.S. government in order to expand nearby Fort Buford Military Reservation. The current Fort Union is a full-scale representation built in the exact location of the original. The bourgeois house that sits inside the palisade walls has been reconstructed according to an 1851 sketch and serves as the park’s visitor center. The original was considered by many as the most elaborate structure on the Upper Missouri.
This was our third visit to Fort Union Trading Post, but the first when the park’s annual rendezvous was taking place. A number of years ago during a trip West we stumbled by luck upon a weekend rendezvous at Fort Laramie National Historic Site. What a wonderful surprise this was! Because of the Fort Laramie experience we chose to visit Fort Union Trading Post during the park’s scheduled rendezvous.
Experiencing a rendezvous is interesting not only for the demonstrations and scheduled interpretive talks, but also because of the interesting people who attend as reenactors. Most have spent considerable time studying the history of the period and the role they play as a reenactor. Each participant is more than happy to share their expertise to visitors.
Jefferson Brown, from Salmon, Idaho, was dressed as a fur trader and was particularly interested in the business aspects of the fur trade. He said he has participated in the Fort Union rendezvous for more than 20 years and has more than 120 living history events under his belt. He had brought along his tent, canoe, and a complete pack of trade goods including axe heads, knives, blankets, beads, and more. Brown considers the Fort Union rendezvous to be among the best of the living history events he attends.
John Halverson of Rapid City, South Dakota, has participated in five of the events as a bow maker. John related that making a bow using period tools required 12 to 14 hours, a length of time he could reduce by two-thirds with modern tools. Michael McKimmy of Minot, North Dakota, demonstrated skinning the limbs of an antelope during his second year at the rendezvous. Forrest Mount from nearby Wolf Point, Montana, dressed as a mountain man, was participating in his third Fort Union rendezvous. He certainly looked the part of a mountain man and offered us chunks of buffalo meat he had cooked over a fire. And on it went, as we strolled through the grounds outside the fort.
One interesting fact about Fort Union Trading Post is the historic site sits on the border of Montana and North Dakota. The parking lot is in Montana while the fort is in North Dakota. Walk from your vehicle to the fort entrance and you will pass a welcome to North Dakota sign. Not only do you pass into another state, you lose an hour because you pass from the Mountain Time Zone to the Central Time Zone. Fortunately, you gain the hour back when returning to your vehicle. Another oddity is this relatively small park is in four counties.